The two NBA stars began their conversation by addressing their collective snubs.
Nearly 25 years after Dominique Wilkins did not appear on the NBA’s list of its 50 greatest players, the former Atlanta Hawks star spoke with Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson about his recent exclusion to commemorate the league’s 75th anniversary.
“You’re one of the top 75 greatest players,” Wilkins recalled telling Thompson during an interview with NBA.com. “I know how you feel.”
The conversation continued about an injury that has often altered or even ended NBA careers. Nearly 30 years after returning from a season-ending injury to his right Achilles tendon, Wilkins shared his clairvoyance that Thompson would do the same.
“So many people count you out when you go through an injury like this,” Wilkins said. “You know your heart. You just got to stay focused, diligent and tough. You can get back from this.”
Thompson listened to Wilkins’ words intently while the two hung out in the Warriors’ locker-room following a regular-season game against Atlanta last November. Thompson received similar encouragement a few months after rehabbing his right Achilles tendon that he injured on Nov. 18, 2020. During those instances, Thompson noted that Wilkins’ feedback “was good to hear because his story is obviously incredible.”
That story? At 32 years old, Wilkins finished second behind Michael Jordan for the NBA’s scoring title in the 1992-93 season by averaging 29.9 points on 46.8% shooting. Those numbers are a slight uptick to when he averaged 28.1 points on a 46.4% clip before injuring his Achilles on Jan. 28, 1992. Wilkins then played seven more years and played in two more All-Star Games.
As for Thompson? The Warriors (42-17) visit the Portland Trail Blazers (25-34) on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, TNT) with Thompson averaging 17.1 points while shooting career lows from the field (41.8%) and from 3-point range (37.4%). But after Thompson stayed sidelined for 941 consecutive days amid season-ending injuries to his left ACL (2019-20) and his right Achilles tendon (2020-21), Warriors coach Steve Kerr observed that Thompson looks “really good and strong.” Kerr added, “I would never be able to tell a difference in terms of how he’s moving compared to 2 ½ years before the injury.”
That’s because Thompson still has averaged double figures in 15 of his 16 games, logged at least 20 points in five of them and reeled off a season-high 33-point performance on a 12-of-22 clip last week against the Los Angeles Lakers. Thompson has shown this progress despite missing five other games for injury maintenance purposes and staying on a minutes restriction (25.3). That marks Thompson’s fewest minutes since his rookie season in 2011-12.
For the second half of the NBA season, though, Thompson maintained relative optimism he can improve his play. After learning about Wilkins’ journey first as a childhood NBA fan and then directly as an NBA star, Thompson aims to emulate how the “Human Highlight Film” reached new heights following his own Achilles injury.
“I hope to get to that level,” Thompson told NBA.com. “It’s going to take time.”
After learning about Thompson’s goal, Wilkins suggested the 32-year-old Thompson will not have to wait too long before playing even better than how he performed before his injuries.
“He will,” Wilkins said. “He looks pretty good. I’m really happy for him. I’m really proud of how far he has come.”
How other former & current NBA players helped Thompson with his return
Thompson has recovered for reasons beyond his All-Star credentials as one of the league’s best shooters. Or that the Warriors’ training staff handled Thompson with care.
Thompson also consulted with former and current NBA players that suffered Achilles injuries. Not only did he connect with one of the NBA’s best high-flyers (Wilkins), but also a former teammate that helped the Warriors win two NBA titles (Kevin Durant) and a valued NBA role player (Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay). Thompson also communicated with Grant Hill, a former NBA star and current NBA TV analyst that overcame numerous ankle injuries during the prime of his 19-year career.
All players navigated different paths to overcome their respective ailments. But all gave Thompson a similar message on how to handle his rehab.
“The big thing that I learned from all of these guys is not to force anything,” Thompson said. “Just take it day-by-day because we’re all competitors. We feel awful when we can’t help our team compete.”
Thompson gained more insight about Achilles injuries well before suffering his own. He learned about them even before he helped the Warriors win three NBA championships out of five Finals appearances.
Late in the 2012-13 season, Thompson witnessed former Lakers star Kobe Bryant rupturing his left Achilles tendon. Bryant slipped on the floor after driving past former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes. Bryant then made two foul shots essentially on one healthy leg. “Incredible,” Thompson said, shaking his head nine years later. Thompson appeared just as amazed with Bryant walking off the court without relying on teammates or crunches for assistance.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 8, 2020
“He just walked it off like it was a sprained ankle,” Thompson said of Bryant. “I’ll never forget that. You never could tell the severity of the injury because of how he acted. That inspired me. This guy is really a warrior out there.”
Six years later, Thompson witnessed another player injure his Achilles. This time, Durant ruptured his right Achilles tendon after performing a crossover move in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. This happened after Durant had missed nine consecutive playoff games because of a strained right calf.
“That’s a move that you make in your sleep,” Thompson said of Durant’s crossover. “I just learned that night that this is what we sign up for. The hardest part of the business is injuries, and not knowing what the future holds.”
Thompson learned that harsh lesson during the next game he played.
In Game 6, Thompson fell to the ground with 2:22 left in the third quarter after former Raptors guard Danny Green contested Thompson’s shot from behind. After leaving the court, Thompson returned from the exit tunnel when he learned he had the option to shoot two free throws. Just like Bryant did while nursing a ruptured left Achilles tendon, Thompson sank both foul shots despite nursing a torn ACL in his left knee. Just like Bryant, Thompson then left the court without any assistance.
“Your adrenaline is so high during a championship game that you don’t really think about it,” Thompson said. “I also had wishful thinking in my head that it might’ve just been a knee sprain. But I don’t even know how I did that. It was a ton of adrenaline.”
Once that adrenaline wore off, Durant and Thompson connected with each other via FaceTime. The two shared astonishment that they suffered season-ending injuries on consecutive Finals games. Instead of sharing tears, however, Thompson said the two shared laughs.
“I played my hardest,” Thompson said. “If you play your hardest, you can live with the results. Fortunately, sometimes the results are a torn ligament. I just knew in my mind that I played my absolute hardest that series. So, I can live through it.”
Harder for Thompson to keep that mindset nearly 1 ½ years later. On the day of the 2020 NBA Draft, Thompson injured his right Achilles tendon while scrimmaging with other NBA players in L.A. Unlike after Bryant injured his Achilles, Thompson said he needed help to get to his car because he could not put pressure on his right foot.
After having surgery a week later, Thompson connected with Durant in what became the beginning of numerous phone and text-message conversations. Durant told reporters before Thompson’s return last month, “you can just feel it through text messages how excited he is to get back on the floor.”
During some of those conversations, though, Durant advised Thompson to return only when he felt fully ready, a tough message to accept. But Thompson only needed to watch Durant during the 2020-21 season to understand why.
By averaging 26.9 points while shooting 53.7% from the field and a career-high 45% from 3-point range last season in Brooklyn, Durant nearly mirrored his scoring average from his last two seasons in Golden State.
“It’s inspiring to watch him and see him look the exact same way prior to the injury,” Thompson said of Durant. “It’s a testament not only to his willpower but his skill level. He might lose a little quickness or a little bounce. But you’ll never lose the ability to put the ball in the hole.”
Thompson maintained he never harbored those doubts about his play, let alone his recovery. Kerr did not want to take any chances, though. Therefore, Kerr asked Hill to reach out to Thompson shortly after injuring his Achilles.
Hill never injured his Achilles but nursed numerous injuries during the prime of his career. Therefore, Hill said he gave “a little bit of advice and hopefully some gems that he can take with him.”
Hill’s first message: “Don’t be frustrated with where you are, but don’t be satisfied.” His second message: “Look at film of yourself.” Both messages served a specific purpose.
“Sometimes when you go through all the adversity, you forget who you are,” Hill told NBA.com. “All you see is a setback and the fight to try to get back and the misfortune with being hurt. You have to remind yourself about who you are as a player.”
Hill said he never talked with Thompson about his own journey with overcoming various ailments. Hill had nursed various ankle injuries that he believed both the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic mishandled during his prime years. It did not sound like Thompson needed the history lesson, though. Thompson could connect the dots already.
“Grant was on a trajectory to be one of the best players ever and still have a Hall of Fame career with a lot of injury problems that guys probably would’ve quit with,” Thompson said. “That’s why I’m really impressed with Grant. He played until he was 40 with the longevity aspect. He might’ve lost some of his explosiveness. But he was such a complete player already that he was effective until he was 40 years old. That’s what I aspire to be.”
Thompson did not just seek feedback immediately after his injury. He consulted with players throughout his rehab. After the Warriors visited San Antonio in early February of the 2020-21 season, Thompson approached Gay and spoke to him for about 30 minutes.
By that point, Thompson received clearance to walk with a boot instead of using crutches. But Thompson still had questions on the next steps.
At that point, Gay observed that Thompson “was probably getting down on himself.” No wonder then that Gay offered positive reinforcement.
“You will only come back as good as whatever you put into,” Gay recalled telling Thompson. “You can come back as the same person.”
Gay also shared his own journey. After tearing his left Achilles tendon in the 2016-17 season with the Sacramento Kings, Gay accepted a reduced scoring role through four years in San Antonio (11.9) compared to his career average (16.5). Still, Gay maintained similar shooting efficiency in San Antonio (46.2%) as he did in Sacramento (46.4%). Gay has since taken a more reduced role this season with Utah (career-low 8.9 points on 41.8% shooting).
Thompson also wanted to learn more about Bryant’s rehab. Since Thompson injured his right Achilles tendon 21 months after Bryant’s passing, he never heard directly how the former Lakers star handled his recovery. Thankfully, Gay relayed to Thompson what Bryant advised him.
“You know what the doctors tell you, but you only know what your body can do,” Gay recalled Bryant saying. “Nobody really knows what your body can do, but you.”
Bryant’s aggressive mindset played out for better and for worse. At 35, Bryant returned eight months later only to suffer a season-ending left knee injury after playing six games. Bryant played only 35 games in 2014-15 after tearing the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. During his final season in 2015-16, Bryant averaged his lowest marks since his second season in points (17.6) and shooting percentage (36.8%).
Still, Thompson found Bryant’s advice to Gay to be valuable because of his resume. Besides, who could forget how Bryant played in his final NBA game?
“To tear his Achilles and come back and score 60 points in his last NBA game is so Kobe-like,” Thompson said. “I love Kobe so much. He inspired me to play the game at this level. I think about him every day.”
Thompson also often thought about Wilkins, too. After consulting other NBA players after injuring their Achilles, Wilkins observed that “you want to give them time to reflect on that and give their thoughts together.” That explains why Wilkins resisted contacting Thompson right away
A few months into his recovery, however, Thompson and Wilkins connected. Then, Wilkins shared details about his regimen that consisted of two rehab sessions per day for nine months. Wilkins completed water therapy to strengthen his right Achilles before working out his upper body to keep his core strong. He then rehabbed on a machine that stretched his right foot before adding weight to increase his strength.
As for Thompson’s rehab? He completed various exercises last season, including walking, lifting, weights, calf raises, mobility and balance exercises as well as running on a weight-bearing treadmill underwater. This season, Thompson completed full-court, full-contact drills before practicing and scrimmaging with both the Warriors and their G League team.
“I know as a competitor that it was killing him,” Wilkins said. “When you are a competitor of that nature, you are going to do what it takes no matter how long it takes to get back to do something you love.”
How Thompson has impressed mentors with his return
Since then, Thompson’s mentors have become impressed with how he has played the game that he loves.
“He worked his ass off when a lot of people would’ve given up,” Gay said. “To be in this league, you have to have a couple of screws loose to have longevity. He definitely has a couple of screws loose. Anybody that worried about Klay shouldn’t be. Klay is Klay.”
Thompson might not have become the exact replica of himself, yet. He has shown flashes, though. In his first NBA game, Thompson drove toward the basket and converted on a floater on the first play. Later in the first quarter, Thompson threw down a dunk.
Despite those promising plays, Thompson shot below 50% in his first six games. But neither the Warriors nor Thompson’s mentors made much of that development.
“He had a little rust coming in, but now he’s getting his feet under him,” Wilkins said. “He’s starting to feel good again. He’s got that rhythm. Once you get that rhythm like that, the sky is the limit.”
Because of Thompson’s improved rhythm, he has experienced substantial improvement from January to February in points per game (15.6, 19.5), field-goal percentage (40.6%, 43.6%), 3-point shooting (32.9%, 44%), assists (2.7, 3.7) and rebounds (3.3, 4.5).
“As long as you put together consecutive days and consecutive weeks and consecutive months of health, the basketball will come back,” Hill said. “I think you’re starting to see that.”
Thompson partly can thank Wilkins, Durant, Hill and Gay for reaching that point. Not only did Thompson feel empowered with their encouragement, but he has also continued to remind himself about their message and the need to stay patient through the good and the bad.
“For me, it was hard to see the big picture. It still is,” Thompson said. “But I’m just happy I’m finding joy with playing the game again.”
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